Advantage Barcelona in season-defining week
FC Barcelona are in a peculiar situation. At the start of the season, they brought in an ex-player, Luis Enrique, to coach the team, so as to get stability and avoid immediate backlash should results go awry. Then they pumped in 157 million in the transfer market bringing in Luis Suarez, Claudio Bravo and Ivan Rakitic among others as the transfer ban loomed large and the search for a trophy continued.
So every loss brought in the same template of headlines – Enrique to be sacked soon; Lionel Messi to leave Barcelona at end of season; Messi and Enrique not on talking terms; Enrique’s iron fist rule has distanced players; Enrique’s rotation policy has spelt doom. The same headlines cropped up after their 0-1 losses to Real Sociedad and Malaga.
Ever since the Sociedad loss, the Catalans have played 17 games in all competitions, and won 16 of them. Leo Messi scored 17 goals in the 10 La Liga matches in this period rocketing the Catalans to the top of the table!
Messi was injury ridden and had his lowest form under Tato Martino scoring ‘just’ 28 league goals in 2013-14 season. Just 28! To give a perspective, Wayne Rooney scored his highest league goals (27) in 2011-12 for Manchester United. Diego Costa’s 27 league strikes helped Atletico Madrid lift the La Liga title in 2013-14. On second thoughts, maybe Tata doesn’t have much room to complain.
The CL tie could’ve been over in the first leg
It was Messi’s double miss – penalty and the rebound simple header into an open goal – which has kept Manchester City in the tie. Credit to Englishman Joe Hart. The last time Leo missed a penalty in a Champions league knock out game was at Nou Camp in the semifinal stage vs another english team, Chelsea, in 2012. The Catalans will take lessons from that heart-wrenching ouster. That penalty miss had given Chelsea a huge boost and supreme belief despite being a man down.
Belief and hope are the two big words Manchester City will need to carry. They carry hopes of a nation which breeds the most popular football league in the world and yet fear not seeing any EPL club make it to the last eight of Champions League 2014-15. There is also a fear of this is becoming a routine. In 2012-13, David Beckham was the only Englishman playing the Champions league quarterfinals stage, with French giants PSG. Much excuses have flown since, including the complaint that lack of winter break tires them. Well, much before winter break, Liverpool were out of Champions league, while Arsenal and Manchester City had to huff puff to go past the group stages.
There are no room for excuses now. Arsenal were knocked out by Monaco, a week after Chelsea got knocked out at home despite leading the tie and the player count (due to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s red) for most of the night.
Can an underperforming City pull off a miracle
In 2015, Manchester City have been out of their depth. In their last 11 fixtures in all competitions, they have won just three games, drawn three and lost a whopping five – including defeats to ‘smaller’ teams like Middlesbrough and Burnley at home. Only the English media and EPL fans are harbouring hopes that City will defy logic and history to win at Nou Camp. The Premier League champions need to win 3-2 (or more) or by two clear goals to qualify or win 2-1 to take the tie to extra-time/penalties.
The last time Barcelona lost by 2 goals was away against Real Madrid (3-1), who were at their peak, over 5 months ago. That was when Enrique and the new recruits were settling, Barcelona were leading 1-0 at the Bernabeu and an unfortunate slip by Gerard Pique was responsible for the equalizer, against the run of play.
Real Madrid then had a dream run till Christmas till the tide turned in the most testing phase of the season. March-April decides the fate of every season and it’s for the first time in four years that Barcelona are looking fresher and fitter in the business end. Credit that to Luis Enrique’s rotation policy – which was much criticized in the first half of the season. It ensured aging war horses like Dani Alves and Xavi weren’t sidelined or were depended upon a lot by the new-look Barcelona.
Enrique, though, should be criticized for his tactics in the second half at the Etihad stadium. His team was leading 2-0 and City sent almost almost everyone forward. The Spaniard sacrificed Ivan Rakitic and got a Jeremy Mathieu – a defender, which allowed City more space to run in. This space was exploited well by City, who got the goal that gives them hope in the second leg.
Barca face City and Madrid at the best time
Barcelona can afford to draw or lose 0-1 on Wednesday to proceed – any of these results, however, wouldn’t be the ideal preparation before El Clasico. A win is needed and an emphatic win would be on the cards. City are playing to save their season, having fallen off the pace in the title race and the Champions League bringing a welcome break from their poor performances in the league. Manchester City have no credible win in 2015 to take inspiration before they hit the Nou Camp turf.
Ditto for Real Madrid. In 16 games post the winter break, Real have drawn two, lost six and won eight. For a team competing with Bayern Munich and Barcelona for the crown of the best team in the world, these are underwhelming numbers.
Camp Nou could end up being more depressing for the reigning EPL champions and reigning Champions League holders.